Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

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Cop Car


The beginning of a bad idea.

The beginning of a bad idea.

(2015) Thriller (Focus World) Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Sean Hartley, Kyra Sedgwick (voice), Loi Nguyen, Sit Lenh, Chuck Kull, Thomas Coates, Justin Barr, Adam Barr, Kathleen Bentley. Directed by Jon Watts

Actions have consequences. We learn this at an early age, usually because we’ve done something foolish or wrong. The consequences are almost always some form of punishment; having a favorite toy or device taken away, being grounded, made to stand in a corner (if we are very young) or maybe being sent to bed early without desert (horrors!). Of course, the more egregious the offense, the worse the punishment.

Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) are a couple of nine or ten year old kids who have decided to run away from their Colorado Springs subdivision. They are traipsing along a vast prairie (being kids, they haven’t particularly thought this through, having only a Slim Jim to sustain them and no water), Travis saying an expletive and Harrison repeating them. It’s all fun and games until they get to a specific word which Harrison is loathe to repeat. Even kids have their limits.

Then they come across something cooler than an F-bomb – an abandoned cop car. At first, the boys timidly run up to the car and having touched it, scurry back fearfully. like some bizarre ritual of counting coup. Eventually they work up the courage to get inside and of course at first it’s all play acting and fun…but then they find the keys.

Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) is not so amused when he returns to find his car gone. You see, he was in the midst of burying a body and had come to fetch a second from the trunk of his car. Having his homicidal activities discovered just would not do. So he goes out to find the pilferers of his official vehicle, while the kids, blissfully ignorant of what’s going on, go on the joy ride of a lifetime.

Watts, who on the strength of his efforts here won himself the director’s seat for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, takes a story that’s been essentially told before, strips it down to its essence, and gives us one taut, well-made thriller. The boys’ ignorance of how things work – they have no clue how to operate a car and make some pretty significant mistakes because of their inexperience – helps keep the tension level high. There’s a sequence when they’re trying to figure out how to fire the guns, peering down the barrels of the firearms and you are absolutely certain that one of the kids is going to get their heads blown off. Da Queen was literally viewing that sequence through her clenched fingers. She wasn’t the only one, either.

It helps that the two juvenile actors he cast are completely natural. They are full of bravado, crazy naive, and bonded together like only little boys can be. They are out on an adventure and are very much, as little boys are, shoot first ask questions later sorts. As I mentioned earlier, thinking things through is not their strong suit. While Travis is clearly the ringleader, the true strength belongs to Harrison – again, as is often the case with little boys. They’re like any little boy you might meet in your neighborhood; a little less supervised, a little wilder, but nonetheless recognizable. That helps the movie a great deal the longer it goes on and is one of the strengths of the film overall.

Bacon is a reliable presence. This is the kind of role he’s done before. The actions of the sheriff are never fully explained; we see him at one point flushing an impressive amount of cocaine down the toilet so we assume that it’s a drug thing, but why he has the two men set for a dirtnap is anybody’s guess. We do know that he’s a vicious and clever sort, not above putting a civilian in the line of fire if it is to his advantage; we are used to our policemen being concerned with our own safety so it never occurs to us that the orders we are getting are not given with that in mind. In some ways, this movie mirrors the public’s changing perception of the police. It’s not that there haven’t been bad cops in the movies – there have been bad cops in the movies as long as there have been movies – but it’s the way we look at this bad cop that’s different.

A couple of times during the movie it did feel like some of the sequences felt a little bit forced in order to advance the story; that happens a lot in these sorts of films although in fairness less often here than in other examples of the genre. There’s an encounter with a motorcycle cop that is very well-written from a tension point of view, but it seems to exist in the story only to show us how clever the Sheriff is. A good rule of thumb for filmmakers is that if a scene isn’t germane to the overall story other than to illustrate a character’s personality trait, it probably doesn’t belong in the movie.

Sure, some of the plot points are a bit contrived but for the most part this is a movie that feels like it could happen and maybe it already has. As thrillers go this one is well done, not quite to the level of last year’s Blue Ruin but certainly in the same ballpark. This is a well-constructed, well-executed edge of your seat entertainment that deserves a spot on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Nice tension. Good performances by the kids who behave like kids.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit contrived in places. Bacon has played this role before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence, a scene of drug usage and kid peril throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the dispatcher is done by Kyra Sedgwick. In addition, the Quinlan County on the side of the cop car doesn’t exist in Colorado or any other state.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your cable or satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Evidence
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Grandma

The Killing Jar


Michael Madsen is tired of being mistaken for Tom Sizemore.

Michael Madsen is tired of being mistaken for Tom Sizemore.

(2010) Suspense (New Films International) Michael Madsen, Harold Perrineau, Amber Benson, Danny Trejo, Jake Busey, Kevin Gage, Lew Temple, Lindsey Axelsson, Talan Torriero, Patrick Durham, Jonathan Sachar, Emily Catherine Young, Mark H. Young (voice), Todd Davis. Directed by Mark Young

There is something intimate about a late night diner. Few customers, each with their own story, their own drama, their own tragedy. Why are they there? For some, it’s just a way station, a temporary stop on the journey between here and there. Others have nowhere else to go. A few, a very few, are waiting for something…anything.

This diner in particular is in the middle of nowhere special. The cook, Jimmy (Trejo) isn’t cooking food to write home about but it ain’t bad either. The waitress Noreen (Benson) probably deserves better than this but still here she is, just trying to make ends meet and not always succeeding. Lonnie (Temple) is a cop who stops here regularly; there aren’t many dining choices late at night in this small town. Billy (Torriero) and Starr (Axelsson) are eloping; they’re excited and in love, but also hungry. There’s also Smith (Perrineau), a salesman heading out into his territory to ply his trade, stopping for a quick meal before finding some place to hole up for the night. Then there’s Hank (Gage) whose story nobody really knows.

On the radio is fearful news; a family one county over has been massacred. Everyone’s a bit uneasy over this; that’s not the sort of thing that happens in a place like this. Then Doe (Madsen) comes in. He’s twitchy, dressed in black leather and angry that he can’t get the steak he wants. Noreen, thinking he might be the miscreant responsible for the multiple murder, spills coffee on him. After she discusses her suspicions with Lonnie (who is skeptical) and Hank (who thinks she might be onto something), Lonnie attempts to question Doe who proves uncooperative. The radio report had specified that the killer had gotten away in a black truck; it becomes clear that Doe is driving a red one. Lonnie apologizes, Doe pays and walks out.

But not for long. He comes back in with a shotgun and handgun and takes the room hostage. Turns out that he’s a veteran and he is fed up. When Greene (Busey) comes in, he’s also taken hostage but it turns out that Greene is involved with that massacre – and that the real killer was supposed to meet him there for payment. Doe isn’t the killer. That means that someone in that diner is and is even more dangerous than the guy with the guns. Things have gone from bad to worse.

This is in my mind a pretty decent premise. It isn’t necessarily a new one, but the claustrophobic environment of the diner, knowing that the people herein are locked up with at least two killers makes for a pretty tense situation. Sadly, Young doesn’t really make the most of it. The dialogue ranges from unnecessary to downright cringeworthy. The movie comes off as too talky which in a movie like this is a bad thing. Dialogue is necessary for a movie like this to be successful.

It doesn’t help that for the most part the actors here seem disinterested in what’s going on other than Madsen, Perrineau and Trejo, but Madsen in particular shines. His intensity as an actor is tailor-made for a role like this and he executes it to perfection. Perrineau and Trejo are both terrific character actors and they at least make an effort to appear like they’re invested. Benson, who has shown some real talent in previous roles, phones this one in.

That’s sad because this is a situation tailor-made for indie budgets. Under a surer, firmer hand this might have been a pretty decent thriller. Unfortunately, it’s a suspense movie that lacks suspense although it gets points for a whopper of a twist ending that I appreciated. Still, even with that the film’s deficiencies are such that I can’t recommend it other than with faint praise. Be warned.

WHY RENT THIS: Madsen is always intense. Interesting premise with a nice twist at the end.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Does nothing with the good ideas it does have. Lacks tension.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some of it fairly bloody with a goodly amount of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the radio announcer is director Young.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Suspect Zero

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: About Time

Breaking News (2004) (Dai si gin)


I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy...

I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy…

(2004) Crime Drama (Palm) Richie Jen, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Cheung Siu Fai, Hui Siu Hung, Lam Suet, You Yong, Ding Hai Feng, Li Hai Tao, Simon Yam, Maggie Siu, Yuk-Keung Kwok, Chi Wai Wong, Wah Wo Wong. Directed by Johnnie To

Our reality is shaped to a large extent by the media. Our lines of thought and conclusions are largely a product of how things are portrayed online and on television.

That’s as true in Asia as it is here. An attempt by the Hong Kong police to capture Yuen (Jen), a notorious criminal ends in a devastating shootout and an indelible image of a terrified police officer surrendering to the vicious brigand. The media picks up on it and the criticism of the police department becomes intense, leading them to assign Superintendent Rebecca Fong (Chen) to spin control.

In the meantime Inspector Cheung (Cheung) has cornered Yuen in a high rise apartment building and the criminal has taken a taxi driver (Suet) and his kids hostage in his apartment. As Fong continues to feed the media stories reflecting favorably on the police, Yuen – amused as all get out – uses his captives’ web cam and cell phones to feed stories to the same media outlets that are far less complimentary of the police.

With the reputation of the police at stake, the pressure is on not just to capture the miscreants but also, as Fong puts it, put on a good show. It doesn’t matter who gets caught in the crossfire as long as the ratings are high.

To, one of the most capable action directors in Asia (if not the most capable) outdoes himself here. Known for long tracing shots, the opening shot which lasts about seven minutes is a thing of beauty. The camera swoops down into a busy city street like an errant leaf on the breeze, soaring up to a second story building and then following along with an intricate, violent shoot-out without missing a beat and seemingly all in one fluid shot. It’s a masterstroke of technical ability and should be shown to all aspiring film students as a primer as how a tracking shot should be done.

He doesn’t stop there. Some of the gun battles in the apartment building are downright graceful despite the claustrophobic setting. He also knows how to keep the tension high enough to keep audiences squirming in their seats only letting up just enough to keep them from having coronaries. He populates his story with tough talkers and bureaucrats and basically everyone else is cannon fodder.

In fact, most of the characters in the movie are pretty much standard characters you’ll find in most Hong Kong action flicks – the cocky criminal, the tough-talking cop, the clever bureaucrat, the femme fatale – they’re pretty much all here. None of them are given much depth.

Unlike most action movies, this isn’t just stunts for stunts sake. There is a real message here about the role of the media. It’s frustrating though that To is basically just wagging his finger at the problem like an irritated schoolmarm. He had the opportunity to explore the issue more thoroughly but chose to go for a car chase instead. Lamentable.

And therein lies my issue with the ending as well; as opposed to the beginning of the film, the end of the movie brings nothing new to the table. You see it coming and you keep waiting for the twist you’re sure is going to come. Then the movie ends. Makes me wonder if To ran out of time to write a decent ending because compared to the rest of the movie it’s awfully disappointing.

Still, this is a high octane Chinese action thriller that is one of the better ones to come from there in the past ten years or so. If you haven’t seen it and you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to rent it.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing opening sequence. Terrific action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Missed opportunities. Ending misses the mark. Clichéd characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a pretty fair amount of violence and some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Russian version of the movie was released in 2009 under the title Newsmakers although it hasn’t yet been released in North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.0M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: We’re the Millers

Mother’s Day (2010)


Mother always knows best, especially when she's packing heat.

Mother always knows best, especially when she’s packing heat.

(2010) Suspense (Anchor Bay) Jaimie King, Patrick Flueger, Rebecca De Mornay, Warren Kole, Deborah Ann Woll, Matt O’Leary, Briana Evigan, Frank Grillo, Lisa Marcos, Lyriq Bent, Tony Nappo, Kandyse McClure, Jessie Rusu, Shawn Ashmore, Vicki Rice, Alexa Vega, Jason Wishnowski, J. LaRose, Jennifer Hupe, A.J. Cook. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are few bonds quite like the one between a mother and her sons. Especially when the mom is psychotic as all get out.

A group of bank robbing brothers (and sister) bungle a job and one, young Johnny (O’Leary) is shot in the stomach. They try to make it to their Mother’s house but are dismayed to find that she no longer lives there. The couple that bought the house – Beth (King) and Daniel (Grillo) apparently bought it at a foreclosure sale. It’s Daniel’s birthday and they have a bunch of friends over to celebrate – Treshawn (Bent) and his wife Gina (McClure), George (Ashmore) and his girlfriend Melissa (Rusu), Dave (Nappo) and his girlfriend Annette (Evigan) and Julie (Marcos), Beth’s best friend and a colleague of Daniel’s.

Trigger-happy Addley (Kole) and vicious Ike (Flueger) call their sister Lydia (Woll) who tells them that she and her mom now live in a trailer after the house was foreclosed on. Lydia brings Mother (De Mornay) over and they get George, a doctor, to try and help Johnny. Mother also discovers the interesting fact that the boys have been sending money to her old address – money that she hasn’t received.

From that point her demeanor changes from courteous and kind to vicious and cruel as she and her boys torture the hostages in order to find the money. The boys are going to need about ten grand to get to Canada and that kind of money just doesn’t grow on trees. As the night goes later and a tornado warning sounds, the hostages begin to bicker and fight amongst themselves and as Mother grows more impatient, the violence escalates.

This is a loose remake of a Charles Kaufman movie from the 80s about which Roger Ebert famously said “The question of why anyone of any age would possibly want to see this movie remains without an answer.” Like the remake, there was a certain mean-spirited attitude in the original (in which the hostages were all women). There are rape scenes in both movies (more graphic in the first) and redemption through violence in both.

The similarities end there however. This one has  much better acting than the first, which while a flop at its release has a kind of cult status among horror fans. This one didn’t exactly do blazing box office either which of course leads to the question why was it made at all.

De Mornay, a much-underrated actress who rarely gets the kind of parts she deserves but delivers each time she does, makes a fine villain. She’s never over-the-top with her character’s psychosis but instead keeps it low-key, making it all the more terrifying when she blows her cool. Most of the others in the movie do pretty well too.

The biggest problem was that once the set-up is complete it turn into a torture fest in which we are made to watch just how cruel these characters could be to each other, and while the original had just three victims involved, this one has eight and there really isn’t enough time for us to get to care about any of them. Most of the characters in this movie exist only to have bad things happen to them. The writers really should have cut out all but three or four of them and focused on them. The whole tornado subplot doesn’t work logically; they’d have been better off using a hurricane as a threat because that would have fit the story’s needs better.

Bousman, who has directed movies in the Saw franchise is  capable enough but here there are some continuity errors that frankly should never happen with a cast and crew of this quality. Quite frankly, while there might have been opportunity for an interesting movie about what it would take to force normal people into barbarity and how far a son would go for his mother, the filmmakers instead prefer to take the low road and just go for shock and gore. For me personally, I need a little bit more to keep my attention. There are, I’m sure, plenty of folk who are fine with just that – I’m just saying for myself it’s not enough.

WHY RENT THIS: De Mornay delivers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really never goes anywhere new. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, much of it gory as well as some depictions of torture. There is also plenty of cursing and some very sexual content

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the filming of a scene in which the criminals had their guns out, police mistook the actors for participants in a bank robbery nearby and held the cast at gunpoint until the situation was cleared up.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $862,769 on an $11M production budget; after several delays and studio switches, the film got an excuse-me theatrical release and quietly (and quickly) went to home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games (2006)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Grown Ups 2

Cockneys vs. Zombies


Alan Ford knows what to do with Jehovah's Witnesses that get a little too aggressive.

Alan Ford knows what to do with Jehovah’s Witnesses that get a little too aggressive.

(2012) Horror Comedy (Shout! Factory) Rasmus Hardiker, Harry Treadaway, Michelle Ryan, Jack Doolan, Georgia King, Ashley Thomas, Tony Gardner, Alan Ford, Honor Blackman, Tony Selby, Georgina Hale, Dudley Sutton, Richard Briers, Natalie Walter, Phil Cornwell, Josh Cole, Gary Beadle, Finlay Robertson, Joan Hodges. Directed by Matthias Hoene  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Zombies are the new vampires and fortunately none of them are sparkling, although we have had some sensitive boyfriend zombie sorts (Warm Bodies). But they’ve never run into opposition like they would have in the East End of London.

A couple of construction workers working on a condo project unearth a tomb from the 16th century with a warning from King Charles not to disturb the contents within. Being modern day men, of course they do and release a plague of zombies for their troubles.

Another victim of the condo project is a retirement home where rough and tumble Ray (Ford) resides. His grandsons Terry (Hardiker) and younger brother Andy (Treadaway) don’t want to see the residence torn down but there doesn’t look to be a way out – they’d have to buy the property back from its owner and they don’t have that kind of cash.

But they know where they can get it. With time being a factor, applying for a loan is out of the question. They’ll just have to get the money the old-fashioned way – they’ll have to steal it. Of course, while they’ve had the odd brush with the law, neither one of them is exactly a criminal genius. They’ve added a few bodies to their brigade – their sharp-tongued cousin Katy (Ryan), their somewhat bumbling friend Davey (Doolan) and the one legitimate villain – Mental Mickey (Thomas), a veteran of the Iraq war with a steel plate in his skull and a surfeit of viciousness.

During the robbery, the bank manager presses the panic button, bringing down the police. The desperate criminals take hostages – Clive (Gardner) and comely Emma (King). When they go out to face the cops, the cops are all dead and a flock of zombies is chowing down. They get away in the van but Mickey is bitten. They manage to make it back to the hideout and debate on how they’re going to get their grandfather out of the retirement home. They know he’ll want to take as many friends as he can so their van is out of the question, particularly since it doesn’t always start right up. Mickey turns not long after but head shots don’t work with him because of the steel plate. Instead, a hand grenade is stuffed in his mouth. Innovation is key to surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Meanwhile, back at the retirement home, the zombies are swarming and Ray, his girl Peggy (Blackman) and friends Daryl (Selby), Doreen (Hale), Eric (Sutton) and Hamish (Briers) take refuge in the kitchen. With the van out of the question, Andy and Terri “borrow” a double decker bus and head on out to the retirement home with the surviving members of their gang. Even if they can liberate these none-too-spry pensioners from the surrounded kitchen, where can they go?

This is really quite funny more than it is serious horror and gore, although there’s plenty of that. I’d say it’s a comedy with horrific overtones more than anything else. The cast is fairly well-known in Britain with Blackman being the best known across the pond, largely due to her iconic role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (and for preceding Diana Rigg in The Avengers – not the Marvel version). The humor is, typical for British comedies, pretty dry although Americans who like their humor over the top will find some gags to love – my favorite was Hamish in his walker being chased by a slow-moving shuffling zombie, complaining “why is it going so fast?” as he plods his way towards safety.

There’s nothing really subtle here at all and they goof on zombie movies not only of the Romero persuasion but also some of the more persistent tropes of the genre. People who are pretty familiar with zombie movies will find a few in-jokes scattered about. Of course these are cockneys for the most part so they use the rhyming cockney jargon (i.e. apple and pears for stairs) that will go sailing over the heads of American audiences. I suspect the average cockney won’t give a crap if it does.

This is entertaining on both fronts – both the comedic and the horrific – that will satisfy fans of both genres. Even Da Queen, not a big fan of horror movies, enjoyed this far more than she thought she was gonna. I understand that the distributors are planning a late summer American release for this – if you see it playing anywhere near you, by all means take the opportunity to see it. It’s one of those delightful hidden gems that you hear nothing about that turns out to be really good and those are definitely one of life’s great pleasures for a movie buff like me.

REASONS TO GO: Cheeky. Occasional elicits some guilty laughs.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is difficult for American audiences to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s lots of zombie gore goodness, a surfeit of foul language, plenty of violence, a few disturbing images and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would turn out to be the final feature film role for Briers, one of Britain’s most beloved actors (mainly for stage and television).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100; has mostly played the festival circuit after a brief British theatrical release; may be coming to a midnight movie emporium near you.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shaun of the Dead

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

JCVD


JCVD

Mr. Brussels flexes his muscles.

(2008) Action (Peace Arch) Jean-Claude van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Francois Wolff, Anne Paulicevich, Norbert Rutili, Michel Bouis, Alan Rossett, Gregory Jones, Paul Rockenbrod, Janine Horsburgh. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri

 

Everyone goes to the movies and identifies with the star. Who wouldn’t want to be a movie star with all the glamour, the admiration and the adulation that comes with it. What w don’t usually get to see is what happens when the party’s over, when the crowds diminish and the movies go from tentpole releases to direct-to-home-video.

That’s where Jean-Claude (van Damme) is. Once one of the biggest action stars in the world, he finds his phone ringing less often and the parts he covets going to Steve Seagal instead. He is in a custody battle in Los Angeles which he loses when his daughter tells the judge that she is embarrassed whenever one of her dad’s movies comes on cable because her school mates tease her unmercifully about them.

He returns home to Brussels with his tail between his legs. There, he is still respected and beloved as a bit of a national hero, not just for his Hollywood movies but for his martial arts accomplishments. When his bank card won’t work at an ATM, he must go to a post office to get some cash. Just before going inside, he does a little photo op with a couple of video game store fanboys.

Shortly thereafter the post office is taken hostage by armed robbers. The police realize that Jean-Claude van Damme, the legendary muscles from Brussels, is in the thick of it, most likely as the leader of the gang.

Except he isn’t. Van Damme’s fame is being used by the actual robbers to become the center of attention; having the police think he’s involved in the robbery is icing on the cake. The action star finds himself in a situation that is very much like his movies except this is no movie and there are no cameras. Will he survive a situation that is out of control or will the real hero that is inside him save the day?

It’s no secret that van Damme’s career has been in a tailspin. Most of his movies in the last 15 years have gone from being summer staples to being lost on the direct-to-video shelf at your local video retailer. This is the movie that might bring him from those doldrums and back into the limelight (and in fact he has – you’ll be seeing him in The Expendables 2, a major action film with an all-star cast, in August). We see a side to him that is going to bust all the preconceptions you’ve ever had of him.

It was always my impression that van Damme had a wee bit of the arrogant diva in him with more than a bit of ego in him. Here, he is a little vulnerable; unsure of himself and not quite the arrogant movie star I thought he was. He was fully aware that the luster of his stardom had dimmed and there was a bit of uncertainty in his own abilities, something you wouldn’t think that an action star would possess and yet van Damme points out that he is just as human as his audience. In fact, there is an amazing scene near the end of the movie where he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly; some of what he says is cryptic and confusing, but for the most part it is an amazing look at the relationship between a star and his audience, and how it feels when one deserts the other, and how it feels living in a fishbowl where every mistake you make is magnified. It’s an extraordinary six minute soliloquy and if you remember nothing else of the movie, you will remember those six minutes.

Unfortunately, in many ways the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to van Damme’s performance. The plot is a bit pedestrian and while there are some moments that are amusing or full of pathos, there is a real sense that the bank robbers are mostly cliché characters acting like a criminal gang that has been seen in hundreds of movies and TV shows over the years. The scenes just don’t play as genuine and could have use a bit more grounding.

This is the kind of movie that can resurrect careers and hopefully it has done that for van Damme, an actor who has done some pretty fine movies in past years (most notably Timecop, still my favorite van Damme movie although this new one is a close second). If nothing else, it might break the mindset of the movie-going public and more importantly, of casting directors who thought of van Damme as a fading action star whose high-wattage smile and good looks are beginning to be eroded by middle age. This proves there is an actual actor buried in there and a pretty good one at that – who will take a few risks not only as an action star but allow people to see him vulnerable and hurt. One has to think that takes far more courage than to do one’s own stunts in an increasingly digital effect-laden genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Van Damme lets his hair down and is surprisingly brutal on himself. This will change your perspective about action stars in general and van Damme in particular.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bank robbery scenes lack the realism to add a sense of jeopardy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some language and violence here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of van Damme’s dialogue was improvised. El Mechri didn’t want van Damme to be limited by pre-written words as he has “his own music” in his head.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was quite likely profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Day Afternoon (really!)

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Moonrise Kingdom